Teaching Our Girls

This past week, I was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey, where I graduated 30 years ago. It was a surprise and an honor to be asked, especially because the message I am always trying to disseminate is one that is of particular relevance to young women.

I was asked to give a speech for the ceremony, and as I talked to these high school students about my passion for raising awareness about heart disease in women and the discrepancy in heart care between men and women, I also knew I had to make heart health relevant to kids who might not otherwise even consider the issue for decades to come. To me, heart health has always been about much more than the standard risk factors doctors usually talk about, so I took the subject a step further. I talked specifically to the girls, about the stereotypes and how the world sometimes seems to tell them that they can either be smart or popular but not both. These stereotypes existed when I was in high school, and they still exist in the world I live in today, especially in the world of medicine. I told them how, as a young woman doctor, I was treated differently than my male colleagues. More importantly, I told them how women patients are treated differently, then and now. There remains a belief that women don't get heart disease. Men do -- especially those who are overweight and sedentary and show up at the hospital with crushing chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating. Women have a more subtle presentation: shortness of breath, jaw pain, back pain, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms are often misdiagnosed, leading to a delay in treatment and worse outcomes. The bottom line, I explained to them, was that if we don't fight the stereotypes -- all the stereotypes, all the way down the line -- then women will always be at a disadvantage. That disadvantage affects everything: self esteem, career success, health, and life itself. Then I talked to them about their futures. I told them that each one of them has the ability to change their own outcomes, and even the course of history. I told them that each one of them has an opportunity to help shape the world into a place where women and men are each appreciated, cherished, and considered equally, in all their uniqueness.

Maybe the paths of these young women will be easier than mine, and I hope it is. I told them that, too. I told them that, as that not-so-anomalous anomaly, a "smart cheerleader," I had an uphill battle, but that they could level the road, beginning with tolerance, respect for intelligence, and the demand for equality.

Later that day, I turned on my computer and found the Internet overrun with stories about comments made by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who said that it was not "good karma" for women to ask for raises. He has since apologized (multiple times) and explained that he had been mentored never to ask for a raise. Perhaps he never had to, but he also went on to admit that when he made that statement, he had neglected to account for exclusion and bias in the workplace -- exclusion and bias against women.

I'm glad that Nadella recognized his error, but at the same time, the fact that he made it in the first place is a sign that we still have a long road ahead of us. In 2013, women were still averaging 78 percent of the pay of a man doing the same job, and the gender gap is even greater for women of color. For example, Hispanic women's salaries are 54 percent of a white man's salary for the same job, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

As a woman in a STEM career (the acronym for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine), I have long understood that I am definitely a minority. It is de rigueur to ask how to entice more women to enter STEM careers, but Mr. Nadella's comment begs the question: Why would anyone want to join a club where she is not wanted and not valued? It's a longer, harder road for a woman to become a doctor, a scientist, or an engineer than it is for a man. Why bother?

Because "bothering" is how we change the world. "Bothering" is how we make it okay for a cheerleader to be great at science and math, for a woman doctor or scientist or engineer to be paid the same as her male colleagues, and for a woman having a heart attack to be diagnosed quickly and treated effectively, in a manner fitting her needs, not the needs of the male heart attack patient in the next room.

After telling those high school girls that the world is open to them, that they can be and do anything, I recognized a hint of my own skepticism. What I said was true, but perhaps I did not emphasize the difficulty of the journey. And yet, I hope those girls will take what I said to heart. That they will strive and try and succeed and change things. I looked each of them in the eye and told them that when it gets tough, keep going, keep fighting, and keep pushing. And, most of all stand up for who you are and what you want. And if you aren't getting it? Ask.

I say to Mr. Nadella, good karma is not about allowing yourself to be stepped over. Good karma comes from standing up and doing the right thing, and sometimes, asking for what you deserve is the right thing -- not just for yourself, but for everyone who comes after you. Good karma is also about treating others the same way that you would want to be treated yourself, and I hope as a CEO of a major international corporation, Mr. Nadella recognizes that. To the young girls out there, I hope they won't be deterred by misguided thoughts about karma or consequences. Take what is rightfully yours, and stand up for yourselves. You can do it, even if the world hasn't changed as much as I sometimes think it has. Maybe it will be easier for you, and maybe it won't, but hang in there. I still believe you can be anything you want to be. Don't let anyone tell you differently.